Uses of ink

Authors: Jonathan Grudin
Posted: Fri, October 17, 2014 - 10:06:47

Many species communicate, but we alone write. Drawing, which remains just below the surface of text, is also uniquely ours. Writing and sketching inform and reveal, record, and sometimes conceal. We write to prescribe and proscribe, to inspire and conspire.

My childhood colorblindness—an inability to see shades of gray—was partly overcome when I read Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But for nonfiction I continued to prize transparency. Crystal clarity for all readers is unattainable, but some writers come close. For me, Arthur Koestler’s breadth of knowledge and depth of insight were rivaled by the breathtaking clarity of his writing, no less impressive for often going unnoticed.

Lying on the grass under a pale Portland sun the summer after my sophomore undergraduate year, I took a break from Koestler—The Sleepwalkers, The Act of Creation, The Ghost in the Machine, and his four early autobiographical volumes—to read Being and Nothingness. Sartre had allegedly changed the course of Western philosophy. After a few days I had not progressed far. I had lists of statements with which I disagreed, felt were contestable, or found incomprehensible. “You are reading it the wrong way,” I was informed. Read it more briskly, let it flow over you.

This struck me as ink used to conceal: Jean-Paul Sartre as squid. A cloud of ink seemed to obscure thought, which might be profound or might be muddled.

As years passed I saw clear, deep writers ignored and opaque writers celebrated. In Bertrand Russell’s autobiography, Frege declared Wittgenstein’s magnum opus incomprehensible and Russell, Wittgenstein’s friend, felt that whatever it meant, it was almost certainly wrong. Decades later, my college offered a course on Wittgenstein (and none on Frege or Russell). I had given up on Sartre but took the Wittgenstein course. I liked the bits about lions and chairs, but unlike my classmates who felt they understood Wittgenstein, I sympathized with Frege.

It finally dawned on me that in nonfiction, as in complex fiction, through the artful construction of an inkblot, a verbal Rorschach, a writer invites readers to project conscious or unconscious thoughts onto the text and thereby discover or elaborate their own thoughts. The inkblot creator need not even have a preferred meaning for the image.

It requires skill to create a good verbal projection surface. A great one has no expiration date. “Sixty years after its first publication, [Being and Nothingness] remains as potent as ever,” says Amazon. (It’s now over seventy years.)

Let’s blame it on the Visigoths

George Orwell was a clear writer. His novels 1984 and Animal Farm are unambiguous enough to be assigned to schoolchildren. In a long-defunct magazine he published this beautiful short essay, a book review. (Thanks to Clayton Lewis for bringing it to my attention.)

The Lure of Profundity
George Orwell, New English Weekly, 30 December 1937

There is one way of avoiding thoughts, and that is to think too deeply. Take any reasonably true generalization—that women have no beards, for instance—twist it about, stress the exceptions, raise side-issues, and you can presently disprove it, or at any rate shake it, just as, by pulling a table-cloth into its separate threads, you can plausibly deny that it is a table-cloth. There are many writers who constantly do this, in one way or another. Keyserling is an obvious example. [Hermann Graf Keyserling, German philosopher, 1880–1946.] Who has not read a few pages by Keyserling? And who has read a whole book by Keyserling? He is constantly saying illuminating things—producing whole paragraphs which, taken separately, make you exclaim that this is a very remarkable mind—and yet he gets you no forrader [further ahead]. His mind is moving in too many directions, starting too many hares at once. It is rather the same with Señor Ortega y Gasset, whose book of essays, Invertebrate Spain, has just been translated and reprinted.

Take, for instance, this passage which I select almost at random:

“Each race carries within its own primitive soul an idea of landscape which it tries to realize within its own borders. Castile is terribly arid because the Castilian is arid. Our race has accepted the dryness about it because it was akin to the inner wastes of its own soul.”

It is an interesting idea, and there is something similar on every page. Moreover, one is conscious all through the book of a sort of detachment, an intellectual decency, which is much rarer nowadays than mere cleverness. And yet, after all, what is it about? It is a series of essays, mostly written about 1920, on various aspects of the Spanish character. The blurb on the dust-jacket claims that it will make clear to us “what lies behind the Spanish civil war.” It does not make it any clearer to me. Indeed, I cannot find any general conclusion in the book whatever.

What is Señor Ortega y Gasset's explanation of his country’s troubles? The Spanish soul, tradition, Roman history, the blood of the degenerate Visigoths, the influence of geography on man and (as above) of man on geography, the lack of intellectually eminent Spaniards—and so forth. I am always a little suspicious of writers who explain everything in terms of blood, religion, the solar plexus, national souls and what not, because it is obvious that they are avoiding something. The thing that they are avoiding is the dreary Marxian ‘economic’ interpretation of history. Marx is a difficult author to read, but a crude version of his doctrine is believed in by millions and is in the consciousness of all of us. Socialists of every school can churn it out like a barrel-organ. It is so simple! If you hold such-and-such opinions it is because you have such-and-such an amount of money in your pocket. It is also blatantly untrue in detail, and many writers of distinction have wasted time in attacking it. Señor Ortega y Gasset has a page or two on Marx and makes at least one criticism that starts an interesting train of thought.

But if the ‘economic’ theory of history is merely untrue, as the flat-earth theory is untrue, why do they bother to attack it? Because it is not altogether untrue, in fact, is quite true enough to make every thinking person uncomfortable. Hence the temptation to set up rival theories which often involve ignoring obvious facts. The central trouble in Spain is, and must have been for decades past, plain enough: the frightful contrast of wealth and poverty. The blurb on the dust-jacket of Invertebrate Spain declares that the Spanish war is “not a class struggle,” when it is perfectly obvious that it is very largely that. With a starving peasantry, absentee landlords owning estates the size of English counties, a rising discontented bourgeoisie and a labour movement that had been driven underground by persecution, you had material for all the civil wars you wanted. But that sounds too much like the records on the Socialist gramophone! Don’t let’s talk about the Andalusian peasants starving on two pesetas a day and the children with sore heads begging round the food-shops. If there is something wrong with Spain, let’s blame it on the Visigoths.

The result—I should really say the method—of such an evasion is excess of intellectuality. The over-subtle mind raises too many side-issues. Thought becomes fluid, runs in all directions, forms memorable lakes and puddles, but gets nowhere. I can recommend this book to anybody, just as a book to read. It is undoubtedly the product of a distinguished mind. But it is no use hoping that it will explain the Spanish civil war. You would get a better explanation from the dullest doctrinaire Socialist, Communist, Anarchist, Fascist or Catholic.

Clarity, ink clouds, and ink blots in HCI

In our field, we write mostly to record, inform, and reveal. At times we write to conceal doubt or exaggerate promise. The latter are often acts of self-deception, although spurred by alcohol and perhaps mild remorse, some research managers at places I’ve worked have confessed to routinely deceiving their highly placed managers and funders. They justified it by sincerely imagining that the resulting research investments would eventually pay off. (None ever did.)

Practitioners who attend research conferences seek clarity and eschew ambiguity. They may not get what they want—unambiguous finality is rare in research. But practitioner tolerance for inkblots is low. Over time, as our conferences convinced practitioners to emigrate, openings were created for immigrants from inkblot dominions, such as Critical Theory.

For example, echoing Orwell’s example of beardless women, the rejection letter for a submission on the practical topic of creating gender-neutral products stated, “I struggle to know what a woman is, except by reference to the complex of ideological constructions forced on each gender by a society mired in discrimination.” Impressive, but arguably an excess of intellectuality. It does not demean those struggling to know what a woman is to say that when designing products to appeal to women, “a better explanation” could be to define women as those who circle F without hesitation when presented with an M/F choice. A design that appeals both to F selectors and M selectors might or might not also appeal to those who would prefer a third option or to circle nothing, but in the meantime let’s get on with it.

Posted in: on Fri, October 17, 2014 - 10:06:47

Jonathan Grudin

Jonathan Grudin is a principal design researcher at Microsoft.
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